'Awakenings' casts new light on mental illness
APRIL 24, 2006
THE BEACON NEWS (Aurora, Illinois)

Art exhibits capture my interest every time.

From the joyous, disproportioned self-portraits which adorn the hallways of preschools to the monumental pieces which hang in the hallowed galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago, I remain always the keen observer, the zealous student, eager to learn.

As an art minor in college, I developed a deep passion for art history; I was as interested in the artist as I was in the completed work itself. And though I have not traveled abroad, I have just toured an exhibit that inspired me in ways I always thought only the Louvre might. And this exhibit is right here, in Aurora.

I am referring to the Awakenings Project, featured until May 28 in the third-floor gallery of the Aurora Public Art Commission.

The Awakenings Project is a coalition of artists and organizers all of whom struggle with mental illness. Founded by Robert Lundin in 1996, the project offers its members the opportunity to find their voices and express them through the arts. Besides the powerful artistic statements which demonstrate profound talent, these artists are helping to dispel the myth that mental illness does nothing but incapacitate its victims. The paintings, pottery and photography I observed spoke of incredible strength and hope, and of artists who can acknowledge their illnesses without shame.

The fad is that our world has been shaped and our lives enhanced by persons who struggled valiantly (and often privately) with mental illness. In the realm of literature, think of Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, John Keats, Leo Tolstoy and Eugene O'Neill, to name a few. In music, consider Ludwig Von Beethoven, Robert Schumann and George Frederick Handel. Add to your growing list artists like Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and Michelangelo, as well as world leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt. One quickly realizes that the debt of gratitude we owe is very great, and that our world would be a lesser place today had these people not made their generous contributions.

Thanks to advanced research, we know so much more about the brain today than we did even 10 years ago. Public awareness of mental illness, effective crisis stabilization, comprehensive treatment plans and appropriate psychotropic medication can all assist individuals today in their determined efforts to lead productive lives with dignity and self respect.

The Behavioral Health Services of Provena Mercy Medical Center serves individuals of all ages who are dealing with psychiatric diagnoses, and dedicated psychiatrists guide the multidisciplinary therapeutic teams. There is an underlying belief than beneath every diagnosis there exists a living, breathing human being who deserves respect, and from intake through discharge, staff are committed to providing excellent care. Every day I see evidence of their outstanding work, because it is my privilege to work with them.

The artists of the Awakenings Project demonstrate that it is not only possible to survive mental illness but to thrive. What grand news this is!

Someday, when I get to heaven, after I locate dear family members, I will embark on an extensive search for those I need to thank. I will look for Vincent until I find him, and I will approach him softly. I will tell him how much I admired his courage, and that his art lived on. If it seems appropriate, I will touch his ear. I will listen to his story if he desires to share it; perhaps he might even introduce me to his brother Theo. Mostly, I will thank him for his relentless kindness to a world that did not understand or ease his suffering.

And perhaps together we will gaze upon the starry night below, but he will be bathed in peace, healed at last.

Copyright (c) 2006, The Beacon News